Around the world by Internet cafe
From New York to Yunming, Internet cafe culture around the world has evolved to serve gamers, business types and those seeking love.
This story is adapted from a broadcast audio segment; use audio player to listen to story in its entirety.
The BBC's Nick Baker embarked on a global journey -- an ambitious multi-media project to draw a map around the world, using Internet cafes and the stories of the people he finds in them to guide him to his next destination.
Internet cafes are social environments, where the virtual world meets the real world: A representation of the real world wide web.
Nick begins his travels in New York, where Internet cafes are the preserve of students:
In an Internet cafe right in the middle of Greenwich Village in New York, there are about 25 terminals. It's lunch time on a weekday, and it should be packed. But it isn't. You might think that, in big cities in the United States -- if this is anything to go by -- the Internet cafe is on its last legs.
But then, across the road in a cafe that isn't, strictly speaking, an Internet cafe, there are loads of people online with laptops and personal devices; piggybacking someone else's wifi. One of those people is John Haskell. He's been in Internet cafes around the world, looking at them from an anthropological perspective.
"I took a year on a Fullbright research grant in China, studying Internet cafe culture," said Haskell.
He says in China, Internet cafes are the primary means in which people get online. "It differs because it's a social experience; whereas in America, everybody has personal computers and stays in isolated physical spaces to log on. In much of the world, Internet penetration occurs with the communal setting."
Internet cafes are called "wangba" in Chinese, which translates to "net bar." Despite the fact that in China very few people own a personal computer, the Internet is booming because of these cafes.
In Yunming, in southern China, Internet cafes are the domains of online gamers and novelists. In one such cafe, a patron is reading an online novel. He's a driver in his 20s, on vacation in Yunming. He reads about seven or eight novels a day, since for each novel, only a few chapters are available per day. He says the novels are a break from playing online games.
World of Warcraft is one of the most popular online games in China. The imaginary world of Azeroth, where World of Warcraft is played, has an international population roughly the size of Greece -- nearly 11 million.
In Accra, Ghana, Internet cafes are less social places; it's where people do serious business.
Praveen Sadalage is managing director at BusyInternet: "We don't call it a cafe, we call it a launching pad for young independents who have ideas. It's a place to network, it's a place to build your career, it's a place to build your future."
Mark Davies, a Welsh entrepreneur and the founder of BusyInternet, says he's seeing the cafes evolving into business centers.
"The one thing we realized that it wasn't what we expected it to be," said Davies. "We wanted to come and create a technology incubator. The cafe is one component of it, an important piece of it.
"What we're finding though is that, as the informal use of the Internet for business grows and you have people who are making business out of using technology, they can't really do it at a home. They can't really bring customers and clients into their home; they're not ready yet to perhaps rent an office. So you find that the Internet cafes have an area where people bring their laptops, bring their customers and do business. So they're really business centers. And that's what makes it exciting. You're watching a whole sector evolve."
The BusyInternet location in Accra rents out cubicles as offices, what they call "service offices."
One BusyInternet customer renting such an office is conducting business with Guangzhou, China. He buys office furniture and air conditioners from China for distribution locally.
“People who don’t have a high disposable income need to rent technology at relatively high prices for a relatively short period of time with the cash they have available,” said Davies. “And that’s, to some degree, the role that Internet cafes play.
“And I think it’s very natural that they would mushroom in environments where people are communication-challenged, where they don’t have TVs or phones or newspapers or magazines – I mean all of those things exist, but not in the way that we’re used to in the West.
“So the cafe still has huge potential to provide front-line communication services on a per-use basis.”
In some places, the cafe culture is dying; in others it’s flourishing and changing. And the way people interact with it varies hugely, according to where they live and who they are.
In Nairobi, in Kenya, people come to Internet cafes to look for love – on dating sites.
This story is adapted from the BBC World Service series, "Cafe Hobo." For more from this series, visit the BBC website.
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